Shortage of medical professionals in Canada hits close to home

Courtney Dickson, Roving Editor Ω

Emergency rooms are becoming a last-minute solution for students in need of medical assistance. - PHOTO COURTESY MARK COGGINS/FLICKR CREATIVE COMMONS

Emergency rooms are becoming a last-minute solution for students in need of medical assistance. – PHOTO COURTESY MARK COGGINS/FLICKR CREATIVE COMMONS

Some Kamloopsians are investing more than two hours of travel time to visit their family doctor in outlying areas such as Ashcroft.

Kamloops is no exception when it comes to the national shortage of medical professionals. Family doctors are particularly in short supply.  

As doctors retire, open private clinics or find higher-paying jobs in other provinces, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find a family doctor in Kamloops, whether you are new to the city or have lived here for years.

Dr. Antoinette Kitshoff of Ashcroft said some of her regular patients travel from Kamloops to see her.

“A lot of Kamloops patients I have moved from Ashcroft to Kamloops and couldn’t find a family physician in Kamloops so they came back to see me.”

Kitshoff is one of three doctors in Ashcroft, all of whom came to Canada from South Africa to practice medicine.

“I came to Canada because I wanted a change from South Africa. I felt I could help in the town of Ashcroft,” she said.

“There is no excuse for the people in Ashcroft and Cache Creek to not have a doctor. There are two new physicians taking patients,” she said.

“Everyone should have a family physician.”

Kitshoff helped recruit the two doctors that joined the Ashcroft community in January.

Not only is travelling to Ashcroft to see a doctor costing time, it also costs money for gas to get there. Ashcroft is 95 kilometres from Kamloops, making a round-trip 190 km.

As Kitshoff pointed out, “in the winter, that can be a bit of a mission.”

Sandy Upson is a fourth-year student at Thompson Rivers University and has been without a family doctor since she moved to Kamloops and started university in 2009.

“I haven’t gone looking for a doctor, but I will if I end up staying in Kamloops after I graduate in December,” she said.

Though Upson chooses not to have yearly check-ups, she recognizes the importance of having the option. She said having a family doctor is important to help patients build trust and confidence in their doctors.

“I’ve gone to the doctor before and not said what I wanted to say because I felt uncomfortable,” Upson said.

Upson said using walk-in clinics can be trying at times. Sitting in a room full of sick people, waiting for hours to get in and standing in line make the walk-in clinic experience undesirable.

Katherine Chan moved from Kitimat, B.C. 10 years ago and has not had a family doctor since she came to Kamloops.

“I was looking for about two years. Every time I went to the walk-in I’d ask if there were openings. I stopped looking because it was just pointless,” she said.

“A lot of people I talk to rely on walk-in clinics.”

“Walk-in clinics waste, like, half your day,” Chan said. “I get up and get there for nine. Then they tell you to come back three hours later and when you go back you sit there for 20 minutes.”

Chan said she now sees a doctor only once or twice a year.

“I go to the same walk-in clinic every time so that makes it a little easier because they have my chart.”

Chan receives her annual physical from Summit Medical Clinic, but not always from the same doctor.

It bothers Chan that she has had such trouble finding a family doctor because in Kitimat she never had this problem.

“Everybody had a family doctor there,” she said.

If Chan had a driver’s license, she said she would consider driving to see Dr. Kitshoff and her colleagues in Ashcroft. In fact, she said she would be willing to go as far as Kelowna if she could find a family doctor there, despite the added cost of travel.

Though she is willing to make the trip to see a doctor, Chan isn’t happy about it. She described the inconvenience and added cost of gas for travelling “unacceptable.”

Following her graduation from Thompson Rivers University in May, Chan and her husband plan to remain in Kamloops, despite the family doctor dilemma.

Rob Blair is another Kamloopsian without a family physician. He was born in Kamloops and has been in the area for 35 years. When his doctor retired less than five years ago, there were no plans for a new doctor to take over the practice and Blair didn’t think it was necessary to go searching for a new one.

On Feb. 24 Blair spent more than five hours in the emergency room at the Royal Inland Hospital (RIH) simply to get a doctor’s note after having the flu for a few days. He tried visiting his regular walk-in clinic, Summit Medical Clinic and was disappointed to learn that it closed early on Sundays. When he finally got to see a doctor at RIH, the physician spent only five minutes asking him questions and writing the note.

After his episode at RIH, Blair decided he is going to look for a family doctor. He won’t, however, look outside the city.

“I couldn’t see myself going outside Kamloops.”

A new program, called “A GP for Me,” is being launched by the B.C. Medical Association and the Ministry of Health to try to find family doctors for the thousands of British Columbians who are without. More than $132 million in funding will go towards this initiative. The hope is to provide all British Columbians with a family doctor by 2015.  

According to the B.C. government, one part of the plan is to give patients the option to consult their doctor via phone. The hope for this is that doctors will be able to take in more patients because they will be able to spend less time with patients by speaking with them over the phone. The B.C. government will pay doctors $15 per phone call, to a maximum of 500 calls per year. This will begin April 1.

For “vulnerable” patients, doctors will receive an additional $200 per patient for taking such patients on. Doctors will also be paid $315 per calendar year for each new patient they accept who suffers from complex health issues. Doctors will also receive $40 per 15-minute phone call with these patients, up to three phone calls per year. The B.C. government has budgeted $60.5 million over the next two years for this part of the initiative.

Some future patients are not too excited about this idea.

“It might work. I think in person is a lot better. I’d rather see a doctor in person,” Blair said.

Upson also said interactions with physicians “should be face-to-face.”